This morning I read a distilled version of the news, delivered to my inbox in the wee hours. A new study on teens, mental health, and technology spiraled my worries. My tweens received phones in a holiday event they call “the best Christmas ever” and I call “a spotty, pressured decision.” We’d swiftly fallen into combative arguments over screen time, and I remained nervous that the phones were a bad parenting call.
Before I’d finished the article, my brain flew into an imagined future where I, Responsible Parent, filtered social media from my kids’ devices and sequestered the phones to a drawer for much of the day. I could hear the kids’ protests, see myself rigidly uphold my decision, and watch a different life unfold, stuffed with cozy family time. It all looked so shiny!
That was when I decided to sequester my own phone and tie on my shoes for a brisk walk. I could tell the fear had a decent foothold when, even in the sunlight, my brain’s picture of screen-free life played out before me like a breathy teen romance, all white smiles and filtered light.
A mile later, I slowed a bit, on all fronts. I could hold the picture in my mind of what I wanted and simultaneously understand that restricting my kids’ phone use without consent wouldn’t, logically, lead there. Awareness was filtering in . . . slowly. Another two miles and I noticed a red-tailed hawk ferrying a stick to the block’s tallest fir. I’ve never known where the myriad hawks nest, and my brain wandered off in that direction.
By the time I made it home, the screen-free fantasyland had dissolved. I reaffirmed the “no phones in the bedroom at night” rule, already in existence to preserve sleep levels, and moved on with my day.
Recognize the fear hiccup
During COVID lockdown, I frequently felt a mental tailspin. Two months in, I deleted social media from my phone, then banned nervous news-checking by assigning it a time of day. These superficial stressors weren’t worth the mental tax I paid by engaging. A stress eater, I still carry the weight of my fears.
The combo of screen time and children’s health sets me off. My breathing hitches as I read about how badly I’ve screwed up my kids by giving them phones. And even though I have a coping method that works, I’m not always self-aware enough to arrest the blaze of fear while it’s growing. Sometimes I charge into a kid’s room to lecture or sit in my husband’s home office to animatedly talk it through, spreading my anxiety around. I’m working to recognize fear earlier, in time to switch directions.
Break the loop
All I know to do is this: lace up the walking shoes. When thoughts are looping, movement helps me arrest mental tailspin. My socks are balled up inside my shoes because this, the gentle encouragement of everything in the same place, is how I make it easier on myself in the moment. Motion shifts things for me, yes. But to give it a chance, I have to get outside first.
I’ll walk as far as I need to in order to change perspective, but I don’t have to walk. In kinder weather, sometimes I don’t get further than the garden, where something always needs attention. The trampoline works well for frustration, engaging the gleeful, almost giddy freedom of leaping high. With any of these choices, I’ve physically moved away from the fear, so my fight-flight-freeze response has been arrested.
The shift in view sinks in last, after my brain slows its charge. Rather than a screen or wall in my home, I’m looking into the far distance. It’s more than just a turn of phrase—I’ve actually expanded my point of view.
Avoid extra fear
Life can be worrisome and fears valid. Still, it’s up to me to filter what I allow inside. It’s too heavy for me to operate at full capacity when the worries stack.
While screen time is a relevant worry for me, I (usually) purposefully sidestep conversations and articles about this topic. If I don’t use a poll to decide if I need a haircut or what’s for dinner, why aggregate opinions on what works best for our family?
As gatekeeper of this vessel, I can’t afford to keep extra fear with me. Afraid, my energy flags early, and I can’t focus well. Moving myself outdoors shifts me out of prey mode and energizes me. That’s a powerful shift to give myself before I face the world again.
Freelance writer in the mornings, graphic designer by night, Christine Emming lives in Denver, Colorado.